In 2004, a service-learning course at Mercer (Wisconsin) High School prompted seniors to develop a community project. Their creation was the "Paw Shop," a secondhand store that also offers handmade items crafted by the students. Not only does the store continue to donate funds to charities and community projects, it brings shoppers to the struggling businesses that surround it. Included: See what the operation of a store teaches kids about careers in business.
"The community definitely knows we are here," Connie Swanson reports. "They see students on the street and ask them about the [store]. People come in just to visit with the students or the volunteers.
The community has also taken a great interest in how the store, which the students have named the Paw Shop, works as an education tool, added Swanson.
Four years ago, the Mercer (Wisconsin) School District's Paw Shop was conceived by the senior class as part of a leadership and service-learning course. It operates as a secondhand store that offers used goods and clothing as well as handmade crafts -- including bird feeders, candles, note cards, and knitted items -- created by students. Although most items sell for one dollar or less, the store grossed $6000 in two years.
"We are always looking for ideas to get more community members involved," says Swanson, a business education teacher. "At the beginning of the project, students and advisors made presentations to community groups and senior centers in the hope of getting more volunteers. Some of our volunteers are retired or senior citizens. We work with RSVP to provide incentives in the form of reimbursement for gas mileage, and our school district uses the STEP program to give tax incentives to the senior citizens."
From the very beginning, students planned to donate profits from the store to those in need and invest in community projects. Because about half of the town of Mercer's retail sites stood vacant, another of the original goals for the shop was to generate more foot traffic for other stores that were still in operation. When the shop was established, its building had no other occupants. Today there are three. While a few businesses have closed over time, three additional ones have opened across the street.
"Like so many things we do in education, we just jumped right in," recalls Swanson. "I wish we would have had a board to bounce things off of. I realize now that I should have used my business partner more when making some decisions, and we should have had more administrative input to assist with tough decisions."
Despite the fledgling oversights, the Paw Shop has become the cats meow in this small northern Wisconsin community about 30 miles from the shores of Lake Superior. Swanson and the students often wish for more space, but they make every effort to follow wise business practices. The building connected to the store is currently available and has been offered to them, but they refuse to take the risk of not being able to afford the rent. It was expected that the students would encounter these complex lessons of supply and demand, but other experiences not anticipated have proved just as valuable.
"Students are making connections with another generation. That is one of the best outcomes of this project," Swanson explains. "When the store is not busy, a lot of good conversation takes place [between students and adult volunteers]. Some students find their niche, whether it is designing window displays or creating advertisements, re-dressing the mannequins, or organizational skills. Some students learn they would never want to own or operate their own business, and that's not a bad thing to realize at this age."
In addition to her class work, Swanson manages daily operations for the store -- from restocking store supplies to doing banking and financial reports to making sure that the sidewalk is shoveled. The Paw Shop receives donations of used goods to sell via word of mouth, newspaper advertisements, and public service announcements.
"It's a lot of work, but I have seen tremendous growth in the students," adds Swanson. "Some who would never give an oral report are greeting customers and talking to strangers and carrying on a conversation with the adult volunteers. Some have realized how much work there is and know this is for them; their organizational skills have really kicked in. I have also seen a difference in the way our senior citizens interact with the kids."